When they first fell in love, Rick and Lila (fictional composites of couples I’ve worked with in my couples practice) had been sexually creative and motivated. More often than not, Lila had let Rick lead their sensual adventures, going along with Rick’s initiatives, as she had with prior men in earlier relationships. She enjoyed the feeling of being desired. The roles they’d played had worked enough to maintain an erotic connection. But when their son was born and Lila stopped working for a few months, it turned their sex-life upside-down.
“It felt like a double whammy,” Lila said. “What little libido I had vanished. I felt dependent on Rick and that made me feel like I had to have sex with him. My body refused.”
Lila had begun avoiding Rick’s advances and criticizing him for being “too sexual.” Sometimes she’d made abrupt decisions in the middle of an affectionately sensual interaction, without communicating her needs or explaining why she didn’t want to continue kissing or touching.
“I started feeling used and tricked,” Rick said. “I married a woman who was my lover and financial partner. Then we had a kid and I was working twice as hard to support all of us and sex was off the table.”
The delicate thread of their erotic connection—a combination of Rick’s sense of sexual entitlement and Lila’s passivity and willingness—had done more than unravel. It snapped.
Gender roles, early family modeling, and an absence of inclusive, sex-positive education had impacted the ways Lila and Rick had been socialized to think about sexuality.
The Tributaries of Eroticism
We explored how comfortable they each felt speaking up, taking initiative, setting boundaries, and pursuing their desires both in and out of the bedroom. As it turned out, seemingly non-sexual domains, such as self-worth, power, safety, purpose, and agency, were the tributaries that fed directly into their erotic vitality—and lack of it.
Lila channeled her guilt and inadequacy about Rick’s disappointment into criticism, complaints and blame—red herrings that distracted them both from a deeper truth. In fact, her erotic numbness wasn’t something Rick could change. It seemed to be a symptom of a larger issue. She’d unknowingly given up on herself and sold herself short in several important areas in life.
Kasia Urbaniak, the founder and CEO of the Academy, believes many women’s experience of sexuality mirrors the story of Sleeping Beauty. In an interview with August McLaughlin entitled “What Does Standing in Your Power Actually Mean?” Urbaniak speaks of modern women and their dilemma. “What you have [nowadays] is a woman who’s in … an erotic coma. She does not feel anything. And it isn’t until the rightfully ordained heterosexual man in a high position of power with money comes to bless her with a kiss, that the spark of her fire, her passion and her Eros awakens. So there’s this idea that for us, our sexuality lives outside of us… Female sexuality is very outside-in.”
Where Do You Turn Your Back on Yourself?
Lila had always wanted to work as a photojournalist. She was gradually getting more comfortable with the challenges and rewards of being a mother, but she felt irritable and drained when she didn’t balance motherhood with other pursuits.
She began taking photographs, again—not just for clients, but to fuel herself and her creativity. She scheduled singing lessons as a way of literally “finding her voice” and experimented with getting into her body through dance and movement practices. Although she’d shied away from masturbation as something “good girls” like her didn’t indulge in, she worked on developing a “sensual-touch practice” that was about bringing mindfulness to giving and receiving her own touch and paying attention to what she liked and how things felt everywhere on her body. None of this was easy, as the mother of a young child. It took commitment and determination.
Out of the Coma
Lila experienced shifts in her everyday life that seemed unrelated to her eroticism, at least on the surface. When people bumped into her on subway platforms, exiting elevators, or on sidewalks, rather than apologizing as though it were her fault, she recognized that she didn’t have to say “sorry” or take responsibility for other people’s missteps. She charged more for her freelance photography work and began to risk setting—and holding—boundaries with clients.
Singing aloud more and asking Rick to take over more of the parenting responsibilities and housework helped, too. She even initiated and explored different types of erotic play with Rick that she’d previously judged as “bad.” Despite the challenges that accompanied some of the changing dynamics in their relationship, and Rick’s occasional anxiety about the ways she was changing, he was supportive. There were benefits to living with a more erotically empowered partner that extended far beyond the bedroom.
For Lila, coming gradually out of the “sleeping beauty” coma meant looking at where she’d turned her back on herself, her own agency, her voice, her pleasure and her dreams. It meant making erotic vitality a priority.
Photo: by author
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